Pilkington on Ando and Richardson, 'Ancient States and Infrastructural Power: Europe, Asia, and America'

Clifford Ando, Seth Richardson, eds.
Nathan Pilkington

Clifford Ando, Seth Richardson, eds. Ancient States and Infrastructural Power: Europe, Asia, and America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. 320 pp. 69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4931-6.

Reviewed by Nathan Pilkington (Harvard University) Published on H-Diplo (January, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=50500

Reading Man(n), Writing History

Ancient States and Infrastructural Power presents the results of a colloquium designed to investigate the origins and development of state power in the ancient world. With any edited volume, one hopes for unity of purpose and presentation. In this case, the editors have ensured general uniformity by requiring all of the project’s participants to engage with four main questions and four main texts by Michael Mann, William Novak, Seth Richardson, and James C. Scott.[1] As becomes clear when reading the volume, the majority of authors most clearly engage with one of these texts, Michael Mann’s “The Autonomous Power of the State,”  though attention is paid to his interlocutors, notably Seth Richardson’s “Early Mesopotamia: The Presumptive State” and William Novak’s “The Myth of the Weak American State.” Thus any reader of this volume is advised to consult first Mann’s own words in his essay (freely available online), before attempting to understand the variant readings and empirical tests to which his arguments are subjected. This is especially important with Ancient States, as the introduction to the volume fails to introduce the reader fully to the two concepts central to Mann’s thesis: despotic and infrastructural power. One must wait until p. 64, chapter 2, for the actual definition of these terms.

Collectively, Ancient States puts Mann to the empirical test, as noted by Clifford Ando in the introduction: “Its method is historical and comparative rather than ideal-typical…. The volume is historical insofar as the chapters take a strictly empiricist approach to the questions posed by its project” (p. 1). In doing so, the contributions fall into three basic types of study: application, extension, and refutation. Appliers (Emily MacKil, Wang Haicheng, John Weisweiler), reading Mann directly, look for the operation of his model in specific contexts. Extenders (Seth Richardson, Richard Payne, Anthony Kaldellis), building from Richardson’s own amendments to Mann’s theory, chart processes “in which the presumptive claiming by states of certain powers leads historically not simply to later states also claiming those powers, but also to the surrender of those claims by civil society, in Mann’s terms, which concedes something like monopoly authority in those domains to the state” (p. 7). Refuters (Clifford Ando, Damian Fernandez, R. Alan Covey) challenge Mann directly, arguing that his formulation does not apply to particular ancient states under study.

Emily MacKil’s contribution, chapter 2, offers the most straightforward, empirical application of Mann’s theory. She states, “Mann isolates three components as essential to the development of autonomous state power in the infrastructural sense: property, legislation and territoriality” (p. 64). She then sets out to study the operation of property, law, and territoriality within the formation of autonomous state power at Gortyn, Crete. Gortyn preserves a wealth of evidence for archaic law making, particularly with reference to private property. These texts, which date from the seventh through the fifth centuries BCE, illustrate a society operating in expected Mannian ways. Protection of private property provides the kind of territorialized centrality, Mann’s “Arena,” that allows the state elite to develop autonomous power.

Wang Haicheng, in chapter 3, studies the Zhou, particularly the ways in which this early state (eleventh through eighth centuries BCE), made claims to and enacted control over territory. This contribution is generally the least concerned with theoretical discussion. Rather, the ultimate object appears to be to establish processes of state formation at any earlier date in Chinese history than is presently agreed upon. With limited reference to Mann, Haicheng is concerned with the penetration of state elites into the rural countryside, in order to demonstrate that the Zhou established and maintained “a legitimate monopoly of force and taxation within a certain territory” (p. 92). He demonstrates that in areas near the two capitals, state actors appear to have been active in administration at all levels, including the rural countryside. By contrast, colonial areas distant from the two capitals were administered indirectly, through provincial elites, as Mann suggests should occur. In turn, at the end of the Zhou period, these colonial areas fractured from the capitals and developed independent local administration. Thus an autonomous Zhou state did exist, but only in restricted areas near its twin capitals.

In chapter 5, John Weisweiler, considers the Late Roman Empire (fourth and fifth centuries CE). He argues that Late Roman despotic power claims, particularly the concept of an unlimited monarchy, “did not inhibit the formation of successful institutions … but, on the contrary, made a crucial contribution to the growth of state infrastructural power” (p. 152). Most importantly, claims to unlimited power allowed Late Roman emperors to restrict the power of the existing elite by establishing new social relationships with classes that had previously been excluded from access to power. This led to increased governance (evidenced through a numerical increase in the bureaucracy), reorganization of the tax system, and the codification of existing laws. A new state was thus formed, one quite different and more infrastructurally powerful than the Roman Principate that preceded it.

Seth Richardson’s contribution to the volume, chapter 1, builds on his earlier work concerning the development of state power in Mesopotamia during the early second millennium BCE. Richardson’s theoretical apparatus begins with Mann’s conceptual framework but argues that state power is most often claimed by ancient states when its actual powers are least in evidence. Over time, however, claims to power matter. Through a process of strategic (domain) ambiguation and historical forgetting, states can eventually come to possess the powers that they only merely previously claimed. Here, he charts that process, primarily, through an investigation of state-promulgated law codes and the actual operation of law on the ground during the Old Babylonian period. Richardson concludes that the Laws of Hammurabi represent an exquisite example of strategic ambiguation, in which the king, though virtually absent from the statutes, nevertheless “was the entire domain generating the discourse of law in the first place, permitting it to exist” (p. 40). Over time, historical forgetting positioned Hammurabi’s law code as “the law code,” leading to an end to the law code tradition, of which Hammarabi is but one, though the last, example.

Richard Payne, in chapter 6, extends Richardson’s approach to Iran during late antiquity. He shows that presumptive claims to areas not yet controlled by the King of Kings in the third century CE ultimately led to the King of Kings’ ability to assert power of these territories over the next four centuries. Such a transition was accomplished mostly through the development of physical infrastructure in the fifth century CE. Internal fortifications, built by the King of Kings to defend against Hunnic invasion, territorialized a vision that was already two hundred years old and provided the autocratic center with more power to coerce the aristocracy than had previously been available. The result was the late Sasanian Empire, whose infrastructural power far surpassed those states that had made a claim to rule Iran before it.

Anthony Kaldellis, in chapter 9, also follows Richardson to some extent, though the theoretical formulation is less explicit. Kaldellis mostly elucidates the ways to correctly understand Byzantine claims to universalism. He shows that this universalism was bounded geographically by the limits of the former Roman Empire. Kaldellis further demonstrates the degree to which these claims to universalism assisted Byzantine emperors in their imperial projects. It allowed emperors to legitimate conquests in former areas of the Roman Empire, develop a series of client states (sometimes then absorbed directly), and promote the prestige of the emperor to outside polities. In sum, Kaldellis shows that vastly too much attention has been paid to perceived gap between Byzantine rhetoric and reality. The Byzantine Empire was not delusional nor was its strategy of self-promotion meaningless or unhinged from reality.

Clifford Ando’s contribution to this volume, chapter 4, while working within Mann’s terminological world, seeks to refine our understanding of despotic and infrastructural power. Mann viewed these types of power as analytically distinct and traced a brief history of both types in his essay. Infrastructural power, while not always and incessantly increasing, moved, via jumps, in an upward trajectory throughout history, concomitant generally with improvements in communications technology. Despotic power, however, has no clear evolutionary trajectory. It could be strong in ancient states; hence Mann’s imperial type of premodern state (high despotic power, low infrastructural power), which he distinguished from the feudal (low despotic, low infrastructural). Ando seeks to destroy both the analytical distinction between despotic and infrastructural power as well as the idea that the overall power of premodern states can only be viewed as low. His specific focus is the Roman Empire and the ways in which local and imperial elites acted synergistically to enhance the overall power of the state. Using the evidence derived from imperial road maintenance, the census, and the process of municipalization, he demonstrates that the “implication of local communities in infrastructure projects not only bound them to the macro regional and imperial economies; it also served to bring into being within local communities institutional structures that responded, and indeed, corresponded to the supervisory and regulatory structures of the imperial state” (p. 143). In turn, “local institutions enabled dramatic extension in the reach of imperial techniques of knowledge production and the effective interpellation of individuals as subjects of government” (p. 119).

Damian Fernandez’s contribution, chapter 8, is similar in certain respects to Ando’s, though the challenge is less explicitly theoretical. Fernandez problematizes the conception of the Visigothic state as weak, Mann’s low despotic, low infrastructural feudal type. To do so, he shows the ways in which nonstate actors participated in and thus legitimized state infrastructural power, particularly by involving local landowners and clergy in the administration of the Visigothic tax system. He argues that “these social actors, in turn, incorporated the language and the practice of taxation as part of their own social and political persona” (p. 244). In doing so, they ensured that Visigothic power reached all parts of the kingdom, creating a much more powerful state than is traditional recognized.

R. Alan Covey, in chapter 7, offers the most direct refutation of Mann. Unlike Ando, who builds from Mann’s basic ideas, Covey rejects them almost entirely. It should be denoted that Covey’s contribution is the only one that concerns North or South America. It is also the latest in time. Covey argues that Inca infrastructural power emerged from far different communications technologies, given that wheeled vehicles, ridable animals, currency, and writing were unknown within the Inca state. At the core of the Inca state, kinship was the predominate means of organizing infrastructural power. Covey thus challenges the very definition of the state, as endorsed by Mann, and he argues that “literacy and currency based economics were not the only option for early state building” (p. 220).

Taken collectively, the contributions create an interesting volume. It represents an important step forward in discussions of ancient state power. At its core, however, it suffers from three problems. First, as many authors are likely to have as many variant readings of Mann’s writing. Second, Mann’s intent in his original essay was sociological rather than historical. Mann needed to establish an independent and autonomous P(olitical) state power to complete his I(deological), E(conomic), M(ilitary), P(olitical) model.[2] In doing so, he aimed to provide a view of social power distinct from the predominately Weberian and Marxian IEM models that preceded his work. At the core of Mann’s work is a simple question: “So what, therefore, is the power of state elites as against the power of ideological movements, economic classes, and military elites?”[3] Only Covey engages this problem directly, though questions about an independent P surely exist for the Roman Republic, Greek city-states, and multiple polities in North and South America. Finally, Ancient States imposes a high startup cost on the reader who is not familiar with power theory. More work needed to be done in the introduction to lower this cost, if the editors desired to reach the broadest audience possible.


[1]. Michael Mann,“The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms and Results,” Archives Européennes de Sociologie 25, no. 2 (1984): 185-213, reprinted in States in History, ed. J. A. Hall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 109-136; Seth Richardson, “Early Mesopotamia: The Presumptive State,” Past and Present 215, no. 1 (2012): 3-49; William Novak, “The Myth of the Weak American State,” American Historical Review 113, no. 3 (2008): 752-772; and James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).

[2]. Mann’s IEMP model is more fully elaborated in Sources of Social Power, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[3]. Mann, Sources of Social Power, 112.

Citation: Nathan Pilkington. Review of Ando, Clifford; Richardson, Seth, eds., Ancient States and Infrastructural Power: Europe, Asia, and America. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. January, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=50500

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